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GRAPE CRUSH : Temecula Wineries Hustle to Harvest on Just the Right Day

September 09, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

They sound like a frenzied castanet combo, snapping at the shoulder-high vines as the blazingly bright morning sun begins to slant through the broad leaves. They open and close their cutters the way veteran barbers work with shears--snipping deliberately, methodically, automatically, row after row and ton after ton.

At this time each year, the grape pickers come to the Temecula Valley to answer one of the oldest and subtlest of nature's calls. They arrive long before dawn to work in the cool morning air, and sometimes all night, shearing acres and acres of wine grapes from the vines.

It is the season of the harvest--called the crush--in this increasingly popular and respected wine country just south of Orange County. After nearly a year of quiet growth and maturation on the peaceful, rolling hillsides, after standing silently through chilly winter months and bright spring mornings and lazy summer afternoons, the grapes a1919230054testing and waiting and testing again--and again--the Temecula Valley wine makers decide one certain week will be the week, then agonize over whether the grapes should be picked that Tuesday or Wednesday or Friday, or perhaps Saturday.

It is probably as close as agriculture ever gets to an exact science. Pick Chardonnay grapes Wednesday and produce a gold medal-winning wine. Pick them Friday and get an also-ran. When the grapes are ready, they are ready absolutely. They won't wait.

The period from late August through most of September is the only time of year when the art of wine making can be said to be rushed. And it is then, say the Temecula Valley wine makers, that their lives become the most hectic and the most satisfying. It is also the time when many visitors, a large--and increasing--percentage of them from Orange County, head south across the county line to taste wine, talk wine, buy wine and watch wine being made.

In fact, said Betz Collins, director of communications at Callaway Vineyard and Winery, the largest wine making operation in the valley, "the greatest number of our visitors come from Orange County."

However, she added, many of them had no idea they could drive south into their own back yard when they had a yen to tour a first-class wine growing region.

"Are people surprised about that? Oh, I hope to tell you!" said John Moramarco, the viniculturist at Callaway. "They're surprised all the time. They'll come down from L.A. or Orange County and say, 'You were just over on the other side of the hills, and we didn't know you were here.' They're surprised that there's a wine country in what they think is supposed to be a desert area."

The Temecula Valley is anything but that. A little more than an hour's drive from much of Orange County and slightly more than 20 miles from the ocean, the valley was planted with wine grapes by Franciscan missionaries at the end of the 18th Century.

The vineyards disappeared in 1904 when cattle baron Walter Vail bought 87,500 acres in Temecula for a cattle ranch. The ranch was bought by Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp., Kaiser Industries and the Macco Corp. in 1964, when the area began to be developed as the community of Rancho California.

Two years later, Vincenzo Cilurzo, a Hollywood lighting director, conducted soil and climate tests in the valley and, with the opening of his Cilurzo Vineyard & Winery in 1968, became the region's first modern commercial wine grower.

During the 20 years since, 10 more growers have set up shop in Temecula to take advantage of the region's microclimate--temperate marine breezes that blow from the ocean through an area known as Rainbow Gap. The breezes, attracted by the hot desert air farther inland, make the valley's climate similar to that of the Napa and Sonoma valleys in Northern California.

Today there are 11 wineries and 3,300 acres of vineyards in the valley. While the Temecula wineries may not boast the size, volume of production and longstanding reputation of their Northern California competitors in the Napa and Sonoma valleys, several of the wines they produce are considered first rate. Most of the wineries have won multiple awards for varieties at competitions in California and throughout the country, including medals at the Orange County Fair, considered by vintners to be one of the more prestigious wine competitions in the state.

At this time of year, all the wine makers begin to move faster, work harder, stay awake longer, worry more and, if the weather is kind, feel more satisfaction for their jobs than at any other time of the year.

"It's fun to be a part of the whole thing, to watch it happen," said Dwayne Helmuth, the wine maker at Callaway. "What's fun--and what scares the hell out of you--is that here's this thing lying out there in the fields waiting for nature to enhance it. . . . Or is it going to be totally destroyed? It's the excitement of gambling and beating the odds. You have control over every aspect except the most important one: the weather."

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